The History of Signs

Signs are everywhere; from street corners and sidewalks, to the grocery store you purchase your food from. By now, you’ve probably begun to wonder where all these signs originated from and how they’ve developed over time. In this week’s blog post, we’ll take you back in time for a look at the history of signage dating as far back as the days of the cave dwellers.

A Glimpse at the First Signage
Modern marketers may be surprised to learn that advertising with signage is rumored to date as far back as the days of the cave dwellers. Historians and anthropologists agree that symbolic advertising may have originated when individuals within a tribe excelled at making particular crafts, or offering services. According to historical research, the earliest form of symbolic signage can be found at the entrance to long-vacated cave dwellings, where the inhabitants had roughly sketched their services on the rock of their front door.

As history and humanity moved forward together, the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians took to placing signs outside their place of business. Often, these signs consisted of a rock back plate which was then etched or drawn over to solicit the vendor’s goods and services.

Signs in the 14th and 18th Centuries
During this period, signs truly began to implement themselves into society due to government regulation. In Western Europe for example, 14th century ruler Richard the 2nd declared all tax collectors shall bear a sign outside their place of business. By the 17th century, signs were common outside Apothecaries, Shoe Makers, Blacksmith’s shops, and more. During this time, symbolized signs were critical to business success because much of the vendor’s patrons were unable to read.

1700’s Sign Regulation
The 1700’s gave birth to the foundation of sign regulation as we know it today. Because signs had gone unregulated for such an extended period of time, business signs had grown (literally) to obscene sizes that could, and would, injure passing shoppers if hit or knocked over. As such, King Charles the 2nd called for the removal of any sign deemed hazardous to the public.

The 19th and 20th Centuries
The period of the 19th and 20th centuries gave birth to the gas lamp, and along with it, the first wave of illuminated signage. For businesses, the ability to advertise their products and services had been long a-waited but seldom expected. Slowly, as gas lamps gave way to incandescent lighting, the sign industry continued to transform.

Signage Today
It goes without saying that the signage businesses have access to today is revolutionary compared to the first stone carvings of bows and arrows. With contemporary mobile signage, LED illuminated signage, and enormous vinyl banners, it is difficult to imagine what ways advertising and signs may evolve in the near future. Despite the many changes to signage over the centuries, however, the fact that they have been, and remain, an effective way to market products and services remains.